(It also can't hurt that it features the first commercial release of a Steel Mill-era Bruce Springsteen song.)
The record evolved over two years in Thompson's In Your Ear studios. "I went in with five songs," Thompson said. "Originally 'Chesapeake Moon' was going to be both the opening piece and the name of the album." That song, a blue-eyed soul chantey that the young Springsteen might have written if he had been a sailor rather than a motorhead, was displaced by "Hit the Fan," a strong, electric-guitar-driven song that essentially pushed its way to the front.
The next two songs, the acoustic ballad "A Little Taste" and the muted-trumpet tinged title track are intelligently crafted adult popular songs.
"Orange Moon" opens broader sonic vistas. "I wrote it very quickly," Thompson says. "Which is usually the way the songs that mean the most to me get written." The basic tracks were recorded during the singer's 2002 China visit; the integration of traditional instruments was a happy accident. "I had randomly picked the engineer who turned out to have won an Oscar for the music of 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon'," Thompson says. "He knew all the best Chinese musicians."
The next two songs form the album's schizophrenic centerpiece. "Wouldn't Wanna Be You" is a flag-waving, ass-kicking anthem written in anger after 9/11. It is closely followed by a muscular version of "Come Together" the classic hippie plea for brotherhood. "These were the only two songs that needed to be together," Thompson says. The contradictory themes revolve around the same two words: "right now."
"Chesapeake Moon" follows, along with a the bluegrass miniature "County Song" and the seldom-covered, cheerfully threatening Beatles tune "You Can't Do That."
The CD ends with Springsteen's "Train Song," with deceptively straightforward lyrics that end with a sting in the tail. "I always liked the song's 'Twilight Zone' twist," says Thompson. "It had to be dead last." Thompson said his arrangement was similar in spirit to the never-released original, albeit with bluegrass instrumentation rather than guitar and piano.
The overall feel of the album is relaxed and unified. The cover art, from area painter Jay Bohannon, echoes the golden-hour mood of the music. The production is first-rate, as is the musicianship of the players. Thompson is especially proud of the playing of lead guitarist and longtime collaborator Velpo Robertson. "We're lucky to have him in Richmond; he could make the 'A' list anywhere."
It's traditional to take local talent for granted, even when their work compares favorably to nationally recognized artists and blows away programmed corporate "country music."
It's been a long time coming, but "One Step Ahead of the Blues" is a strong step forward for Thompson. Peter McElhinney
A CD release party will be held at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen on April 5 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased on www.robbinthompson.com or by calling 261-6200.
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